Why Is Family Important in Therapy – Should Mums and Dads Get Therapy Too?

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Adolescence can be a challenging and transitional phase for young people and their families. As young people search for their identity, independence, and a sense of belonging, they may encounter many conflicts, both within themselves and with the society around them.

Their search for identity and autonomy may challenge previous family roles and lead to tensions and conflicts that cause adolescents additional stress.

At the same time, mental health problems within the family can cause difficult feelings like powerlessness, guilt, or frustration.

Sometimes family dynamics can help to sustain a young person’s mental health problems, even when family members have the best intentions.

Equally, unresolved conflicts or unhealthy relationships can make a young person’s recovery journey more difficult or cause them to relapse after the end of a program. 

That’s why involving families in adolescent recovery programs is so important. Family therapy, parental interventions, and other approaches can support families to address behaviours, habits, or conflicts that may be sustaining a young person’s mental health concerns.

They can also help families identify and change their family’s structure and hierarchies to build a stable base that promotes healthy and supportive behaviours.

This blog outlines some of the main benefits of family therapy and explains why it is so important for a young person’s recovery journey.

It also looks into some of the different evidence-based types of family interventions that are proven to effectively treat mental health disorders and help teenagers and adolescents reclaim fulfilling lives.

Why Is Family Important for a Young Person’s Recovery?

Family members usually constitute a young person’s closest and most important relationships. Supportive families with healthy dynamics can provide the care, encouragement, and boundaries that young people need to get through difficult times and maintain healthy behaviours.

On the other hand, a lack of communication, conflict, or unhealthy power dynamics can cause anxiety, stress, isolation, and low self-esteem. Parents can also set good – or bad – examples for their children through their own behaviours.

It’s important to remember that family dynamics can act as barriers to a young person’s recovery even when parents and other family members have good intentions and act out of care.

That’s why external and professional help is so important. Trained therapists can support parents in understanding which behavioural patterns may be harmful and teach them skills and strategies to find better solutions.

Providing Care and Support

During outpatient treatment – or when a young person has left a residential program – young people will still face challenges and more difficult times.

They need to have care and support to help them navigate these situations without falling back onto unhelpful coping mechanisms or harmful thought and behavioural patterns.

Family therapy can teach parents and other family members how to best support a young person and how to create a nurturing home environment where young people feel safe and secure.

Responding to Anger and Conflict

Young people recovering from personality disorders or conduct disorders may sometimes act angrily towards family members or other people.

For many young people, angry or aggressive behaviours are rooted in past experiences of trauma and they require a nurturing environment that builds their self-esteem rather than inducing shame.

Family therapy and parent interventions can help family members learn how to respond in a way that avoids escalation or harsh punishments – while still setting healthy boundaries.

Developing Crisis Plans

Having a child who is self-harming or wanting to take their own life is one of the hardest things parents can deal with. During treatment, therapeutic and other approaches aim to prevent or reduce these crises, but sometimes mental health situations still escalate – even when a young person is making a strong recovery.

If a crisis does happen, it’s important for both parents and the young person to have a crisis plan to follow to keep them safe.

Family therapy can help parents form a coping plan so they don’t have to make decisions under pressure and can make important preparations in advance.

Creating a Positive Home Environment

The way that parents interact – both with other family members and others around them – can have a big impact on a child’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviours.

Research suggests that some eating attitudes and behaviours of parents may make it more likely that children develop eating problems. 

For young people recovering from eating disorders, it’s important to be surrounded by a positive and healthy culture surrounding food.

Conversations about dieting or body weight – or parents’ own concerns about shape or weight – can be triggering and push young people back towards previous thoughts and behaviours. Other eating habits – like eating secretively or avoiding situations with food – can also impact a young person’s recovery.

Sometimes it can be hard for parents to avoid harmful behaviours – particularly if they have eating problems themselves. Family therapy or parent interventions can work with parents to identify and change damaging behaviours to build a home environment that encourages healthy relationships with food.

Learning Conflict Resolution Strategies

Big conflicts and escalations at home can cause a lot of stress and anxiety for every member of the family.

For a young person, conflicts can trigger mental health symptoms to reappear or make it more difficult to maintain a strong recovery. For parents, additional stress and anxiety may affect the way they interact with their children and make it harder to be helpful and supportive.

While it’s normal to have some conflicts or disagreements between family members, it’s important to know how to resolve them without escalation – and so that they don’t keep reappearing.

Family therapy interventions teach family members conflict resolution skills to find solutions to disagreements that meet everyone’s needs and leave each member feeling heard and valued.

They may also teach communication skills that make it less likely for serious conflicts to arise in the first place.

What Are Some Different Types of Family Therapy?

Psychologists and other mental health experts use several different types of family interventions to support adolescent mental health care.

Three of the most common are psychoeducation, behavioural interventions, and systematic family therapy.

Psychoeducation

Family psychoeducation sessions offer a collaborative approach to information sharing where mental health professionals work with family members to increase their understanding of mental health concerns and teach coping, communication, and problem-solving skills. They aim to help family members provide effective support in a young person’s recovery journey.

Research has found that family psychoeducation sessions reduce relapse rates of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, while supporting all family members to form stronger and more stable relationships both inside and outside the family.

Behavioural Interventions

Behavioural family interventions try to affect a young person’s behaviours by changing certain family dynamics or aspects of the home environment that might reinforce those behaviours.

Parents may develop skills to respond to conflict or anger from a young person and set boundaries while avoiding escalation or harming a young person’s self-esteem.

They may learn how to reinforce healthy food behaviours in the home or how to balance a young person’s autonomy with the family’s collective needs.

Family Systems Therapy

Family systems therapy treats the family unit as a system where each member’s behaviour affects every other member and the family as a whole.

Different family processes – such as parenting practices, collective problem-solving, and parents’ mental health – impact each family member and the relationships between them.

There are many types of family systems therapy. Structural family systems therapy may help families to build a healthy structure of relationships that have their own limits and boundaries.

They may learn how to adapt and change these relationships as young people grow older and their needs for independence develop and grow.

Other types of family system therapy may focus on finding new solutions to long-standing problems where current strategies no longer work.

How Effective is Family Therapy?

A significant body of research shows that incorporating family members or family elements into therapy either directly or indirectly supports treatment for adolescent mental health problems.

Studies have found that family systems therapy is an effective intervention for a wide range of mental health problems, including eating disorders, mood disorders, and anxiety disorders

Family therapy can be an important part of both residential and outpatient recovery programs for young people. Treatment centres may work with families to organise and schedule sessions conveniently and effectively.

The Wave Clinic: Specialist Recovery Programs for Young People

The Wave Clinic offers specialist mental health treatment for young people, supporting them to plan and build better futures.

We set the global standard for youth mental health care, combining clinical excellence with education, enriching adventures, community responsibility, and a gap-year experience.

Our centre offers a safe and supportive environment where young people can heal from trauma, reconnect with themselves, and develop long-lasting skills and healthy coping mechanisms.

At The Wave, we put family first. ‘Family’ may include parents, step-parents, carers, siblings, and anyone who has become family by choice. We welcome all family members to our programs and consider them to be an important part of our treatment team.

If you would like to find out more about our programs, please get in touch today. We offer one-of-a-kind recovery experiences for young people and their families.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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